Let’s be honest, a documentary showing the distress of thousands of millennials at the disastrous Fyre Festival always had the potential to be the feelgood movie of the year.
For those of us who instinctively reach for the vomit bag whenever we hear the term “social media influencer,” what could be better than seeing overprivileged young white folk suffering their own personal Vietnams as the Bahamas blowout blew up in their faces in such spectacular fashion in April 2017?
Well, the good news is that there’s a brilliant documentary about the farcical island event that ended with its “mastermind” going up the river for six years.
The bad news is that it’s split fairly evenly between two new films: “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (now on Netflix) and “Fyre Fraud” (Hulu, so those outside of the United States may need to get creative to watch it).
You may be wondering why the Fyre Festival gets two competing documentaries when the stories of, say, Fred Rogers or Ruth Bader Ginsburg only merit one. The answer seemingly lies in internecine feuds, ego wars and pissing contests among the films’ subjects. (Fighting “Fyre” with “Fyre” – verily, did “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” teach us nothing?)
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Some whiz kid (irony alert: probably a millennial) will eventually take both of these documentaries and mash them into the definitive Fyre Festival story. Until that day, though, you could do far worse things with your time than watch both – such as heading off to a remote island for the worst-organized event in the history of civilization.
Netflix’s film draws on exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from marketing agency Jerry Media. It was brought onboard by a New York startup called Fyre to produce a slick online campaign that would inspire people to part with key body organs in their desire to attend the coolest-sounding festival in the world. Except what they imagined as Coachella in the Caribbean soon turned into “Lord of the Flies” minus the conch.
This footage takes us into the irony-free world of a then-25-year-old New Jersey chancer called Billy McFarland and the New York rapper Ja Rule (née the wonderfully dweebish Jeffrey Atkins) – two nauseating characters straight out of a bad Bret Easton Ellis novel. These men are so narcissistic, you assume they decided to hold their “extravaganza” on a Caribbean island in order to see their reflections more clearly in the azure-blue waters.
That narcissism is also reflected in the amount of footage Jerry Media shot of the dastardly duo while they hatched their hare-brained scheme to stage an iconic music festival on a remote island – one lacking any of the facilities that might make such an idea even remotely feasible, never mind in less than six months.
The toast/boast the two men make during a New Year’s Eve party on a yacht in the Bahamas sums up their charms: “Live like movie stars, party like rock stars and fuck like porn stars.”
They initially dream of holding their festival on the stunning Norman’s Cay, describing it in online ads as the island once owned by Pablo Escobar – not factually correct, but the least of their problems as they are immediately booted from the island by its owner, who bridles at any mention of the notorious narcotics kingpin in connection with the place.
They then chance upon an alternative venue on Exuma, which sounds like a condition I had as a teenager but is actually the 10th largest island in the Bahamas. It’s still an impossible task to stage a big festival here, but on the bright side at least this place has an airport.
You have to grudgingly admit there was some genius work at play at Fyre, which managed to seduce a young audience into handing over thousands of dollars for the privilege of seeing the likes of Blink-182. How did they do it? Certainly not by playing “All the Small Things” in the ads. Instead, they showed a group of supermodels cavorting on a sun-kissed beach and even swimming with pigs (the perfect metaphor for the event, as it turned out).
Both documentaries confirm that Kendall Jenner received $250,000 for posting one Instagram message about the festival – galling enough in its own right, but even more so when you see the tens and even hundreds of Bahamians who worked on the ground without getting paid for their labors.
What’s most fascinating – and what neither documentary really answers – is how McFarland believed he could get away with it. Although in many ways his various operations were pyramid schemes like those of Bernie Madoff, the big difference is that McFarland didn’t sail into the Caribbean sunset when the Fyre tickets sold out. Instead, he actually attempted to put the festival on, succeeding only in staging one of the most public shitshows of all time – the epic fail that launched a thousand quips.
Did he ever believe he had a hope in hell of making it work? Of launching the next Lollapalooza? Was he misguided? Delusional? The anecdote in the Hulu documentary that he became obsessed with the idea of sailing a pirate ship into the Bahamas suggests the latter. At his trial last fall (not shown in either film), he blamed mental illness for his actions – a claim rejected by the court.
The big advantage Hulu’s documentary seemingly had was its exclusive one-on-one access with McFarland. Yet this is far less revelatory than you may hope. He’s an enigmatic character, for sure, but in the staged interview is a rather pathetic figure who never comes close to opening up about anything. Mind you, I fully imagined him finishing the interview and “limping” away, only to straighten up and go full Keyser Söze as soon as he turned the corner.
Although one definitive documentary would have been better for viewers, there’s no denying the fact that there are plenty of great anecdotes to go around. For example, “Fyre Fraud” recounts how the organizers spent $2 million on alcohol for the festival – only to be hit with a crippling $900,000 tax bill from the Bahamian authorities to import it.
Netflix’s documentary, meanwhile, regales us with the, er, jaw-dropping story of how, when the Bahamians refused to allow Fyre to bring in Evian water until import taxes were paid on it, McFarland turned to event producer Andy King and asked him, “Will you suck dick to fix this water problem?” Amazingly, King did agree to take – or, more accurately, give – one for the team, although he ultimately didn’t have to stoop so low. (Incidentally, after watching both documentaries, I’d say King is one of the few people to come out of this affair with his dignity intact.)
Overall, the Netflix documentary is far stronger on the behind-the-scenes details, while the Hulu doc works harder to paint a bigger picture – such as how McFarland was able to access large amounts of money to fund his schemes. However, its patronizing depiction of millennials may well alienate many of them – a mistake the Netflix doc (unlike this column) avoids.
There are three villains in the Fyre story but only one of them, McFarland, has been held to account. Ja Rule was clearly too busy partying like a rock star to speak directly to either documentary team about his involvement in Fyre, seemingly happy to let his partner take the fall. Social media sites are already judging him harshly for that.
And then there’s Instagram, with its photogenic influencers and online mirages peddling pictures of perfection. I’m still mad as hell with the photo-sharing site for indirectly causing the closure of many traditional Jewish delis in New York, since youngsters apparently don’t want to take photos of “ugly” food so stopped frequenting them.
As a result, I’m thinking of staging my own anti-Instagram event, also on a remote Caribbean island. Mine will be called Ire Festival and Bella Hadid will not be endorsing it. Feel free to send checks to the usual address.